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In January 2021, WebRTC became an official web standard.
It was hardly a surprising announcement, given the major role this relatively unknown protocol plays in our everyday internet usage. However, even this major milestone may be overshadowed soon enough, with further uses and developments in the pipeline.
In case you didn’t know, the RTC part of the name stands for ‘real-time communication’. WebRTC is a free and open-source system developed in 2011 to allow web browsers and mobile devices to communicate with each other through APIs (application programming interfaces). While it has a wide range of applications, those related to event streaming are only just starting to be explored.
What does WebRTC even do?
With ‘real-time communication’ being part of the name, WebRTC obviously plays an important role in things like video conferencing and group interaction. It has other applications, such as controlling and monitoring home surveillance systems via an app on your phone, but the use that most people have been heavily relying on throughout the COVID crisis is the ability to communicate and coordinate with people in remote offices.
“For many people, the last year would have looked a lot different – and been much less entertaining, emotionally connected, and productive – without WebRTC. In 2020, the use of real-time apps surged as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted companies to shift their workforces to remote and lockdown forced people to stay home with only the internet to connect them,” wrote Mo Nezarati of Subspace in a blog post on the current state and future of WebRTC.
“Just how much did the pandemic impact people’s use of real-time apps? Well, in the first weeks of lockdowns in March 2020, Google Hangouts usage soared 25 times over compared to just a couple of months before, while YouTube streaming more than doubled, from 15 billion to 32 billion minutes, in April 2020 vs. April 2019. It’s particularly interesting to note that spikes in getUserMedia calls, which are involved in WebRTC, aligned with COVID waves around the world.”
What does WebRTC bring to event streaming?
“There’s been a kind of evolution in video broadcasting,” said Ryan Jespersen of Millicast, a WebRTC-based developer platform recently acquired by Dolby. “We’ve gone from analogue to digital to streaming to cloud-based deployments and it’s now embraced the web. This RTC space is an intersection of that.”
With 20 years of experience in the live streaming business, Ryan has a very good idea of where the industry is going and how WebRTC can contribute. He stresses the three important needs for the streaming industry: human interactivity, low latency and native distribution to every single device in the world. “WebRTC is that,” he said. “There is no other technology in the world that’s perfectly positioned to do that.”
He added, “You have this strange ecosystem now of the traditional broadcast industry, the somewhat new live-streaming industry and the even newer WebRTC space that has never been narrowly focused on either broadcast or streaming. Both broadcasting and streaming have been against WebRTC because they have not accepted it as the next generation of where technology is going.”
How WebRTC differs from streaming
The aspect of WebRTC that helps it stand apart from streaming is the simple fact that it is a two-way communication. It enables a degree of audience engagement and interaction that has never been successfully achieved by broadcast and is severely limited in streaming.
“Trying to do two-way at scale is the next El Dorado,” said Ryan. “How do we get a broadcast stream and wrap true fan engagement, virtual audience interactivity, trivia, quizzes, betting and gambling – all of these in real time to create additional experiences that add a lot more value to a broadcast?” The answer is WebRTC, though the exact specifics of how that will look remain to be seen.
According to Mo’s blog post, Ryan’s El Dorado may be closer than even he thinks. “Large conferences and trade shows may never fully return to the in-person only events they were prior to the pandemic, in part because of WebRTC,” he wrote. “But rather than being driven by travel restrictions and the need for social distancing, some large events will likely remain partly virtual because there will no longer be a trade-off between accessibility and convenience and the quality of the experience. With real-time audio and video streaming, the ability to support an unlimited number of virtual attendees, and capabilities that will allow those remote participants to interact with each other and the event they’re attending, WebRTC can enable more dynamic and interactive hybrid experiences that offer as much as being there in person.”
A further advantage of the system over current streaming technology is the fact that it was specifically bought and open-sourced by Google in order to allow them to integrate it into their Chrome browser. “Google realised that they needed native video and audio inside of the web browser, so they ended up buying the company that made WebRTC, open-sourcing the technology and putting it inside the web browser,” said Ryan. “The idea of a browser being able to encode and decode video and audio was very new and revolutionary. The only way you could do that previously was with a plugin, which is really not native. That’s what the Flash Player plugin was.”
He added that he believes that hardware encoders will be a thing of the past in five years. Even capture cards will be obsolete as everything will be done in the browser. Indeed, this is already possible using WebRTC, but the quality is currently the biggest struggle.
Broadcast quality with low latency
When describing the major advantages of WebRTC, Ryan referenced a joke that, by his own admission, is somewhat cliched but nonetheless accurate: that of watching a football match on a broadcast stream but hearing about the goals on Twitter before they have been scored on screen. Given that WebRTC lives up to its name of being real-time, that’s obviously less of an issue for this particular system.
Of course, the technology’s use in the likes of Google Hangouts has not necessarily been WebRTC’s greatest advertisement. The comparatively low quality of the video feeds of conference calls has led to a lot of negative perception around WebRTC. Ryan added, “It’s always been considered web quality, not really broadcast quality. The big thing we were trying to do to create adoption is to develop native tools. That’s what the broadcast and streaming industry needs – they need a way to evolve beyond the antiquated RTMP protocol into one that is natively low-latency and embraces these higher qualities of the future as it relates to video and audio codecs.”
What does the future hold?
By Ryan’s own admission, WebRTC is not yet ready to handle events on a FIFA World Cup sort of level, though more because of cost than capability. It is already faster and cheaper than satellite transmission, which is why the NFL in the US is already using the technology to allow live remote production of games, pulling feeds from multiple cameras and enabling multiple teams to work with them in real time.
However, as adoption increases and the technology becomes cheaper to implement, Both Ryan and Mo foresee a lot of exciting opportunities. “From multiparty online games with voice and video participation to live fitness activities to opportunities for fan engagement during sporting event broadcasts, WebRTC will help unleash an exciting new level of interactivity to livestreams and broadcasts,” Mo wrote.
His visions of the future are comparatively grounded. Ryan is excited to see virtual stadiums in the metaverse, allowing fans to feel like they’re in the stands watching virtual concerts and sports events. He also foresees a revolution in broadcast media, with a move towards streamers, podcasters and citizen journalists being able to integrate multiple audio and video feeds into their content in real time.
There are, however, still some obstacles to overcome. Bayan Towfiq, CEO of Subspace, voiced some concerns alongside his optimism. He said, “WebRTC eliminated previous barriers that existed as far as enabling seamless and flexible online interactions. The move to standard will only improve delivery and expand the potential of real- time interactivity. These are exciting times, and among technology firms, there’s a huge propensity to move fast and deliver big changes. But in many cases, the networks themselves aren’t ready for the next generation of WebRTC, and without considering how we support real-time apps, there is a risk that all of this energy and innovation will be hampered by the networks that transport these streams.”
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